More than 80% of the French population is urban, and with it, the vast majority of schools. How then can most pupils benefit from these increasingly talked-about outdoor classes? Can the school in nature really become the educational revolution of the XXIᵉ century?

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Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier

This article was co-written with Corine Martel, educational advisor and director of the EducNatu're centre in Restinclières and lecturer at the Faculty of Education of the University of Montpellier.


First of all, let's remember that, if the term "nature" implies a place where greenery prevails over concrete, it is also important to pay attention to the small vegetated corners and parks present in the city. It is necessary to remember that underneath the tarmac there is soil.

Despite urban densification, nature is all around us, all the time, whether it is a park, shared gardens, trees along an avenue or planted on rooftops, and even the sky where invisible biodiversity lives (bacteria, fungi and yeasts transported by water droplets). The current policy of greening urban spaces opens up new perspectives for teachers.

With the multiplication of strategic projects described as "natural city", "green city" or "green and blue network", the aim is to develop a more resilient city, to limit the consequences of global warming, which in urban areas translates into the reduction of urban heat islands and therefore the planting of trees or the installation of green roofs. All these elements are levers and resources for a school outside in the city.

School outside in the city, a real need

The craze for the outdoor school cannot be reduced to the period of health crisis and confinement that we have experienced; teaching in nature and with nature is a necessity and a need. In fact, beyond the idea of nature deficit, studies show the interest of nature for psychic balances, health in general or creativity, fundamental elements for a harmonious education and respectful of the needs and biological rhythm of children and teenagers.

The densification of cities has clearly reduced the links between human beings and their environments. Combined with increasing sedentarisation, by confining children to small spaces, this has only accelerated the gap between young children and nature, at a time when they long to move, run and enjoy recreational spaces.

The programmes in most subjects emphasise, in particular through environmental education, knowledge of the links between human beings and nature. Marie Jacqué underlines the importance of the various conceptions of nature by teachers. It may indeed be a representation of a nature without the human species: a nature to be respected and preserved for its own sake. In this perspective, it is a sensitive approach to nature that is favoured.

But nature can also be like an ecosystem to be understood in its relations between living beings. This approach skilfully contributes to favouring cooperative teaching practices, exchanges with peers and mutual aid.

In all cases, the teachers who practice this outdoor school in the city choose to anchor their learning as close to reality as possible, so that their pupils can make observations in situ which will serve as a support for learning in class. Because, paradoxically, the impact of human buildings can allow the observation of a biodiversity composed of refuges for certain animal and plant species following the destruction of natural spaces. This is how projects that support biodiversity can be developed in cities, such as educational land areas or ABCs of biodiversity, and the E3D certification of schools and establishments.

This evolution is not only school-based but is also thought out for extracurricular time with the creation of adventure playgrounds, educational spaces allowing children to appropriate natural areas.

Walking class and greening

The walking class is one of the most emblematic and obvious outdoor activities of the school. It is part of French school history and a living school. At the beginning of the 20th century, the pedagogues Élise and Célestin Freinet took up this activity to make it an emblematic practice of their pedagogy by giving it a multidisciplinary aim and allowing the children to really be the actors of their learning. This walk was an opportunity to develop children's awareness of the environment and to encourage direct experimentation with nature. For the Freinet family, this activity is a lever for radically transforming the ways of teaching and learning by developing mutual aid, sharing and cooperation between children.

Today, it can be a tool to develop this school with nature in the city. Of course, administrative measures sometimes make it difficult for a class to go outside, but the objective is not to go far away, but rather to observe the nearby area where nature is present in all its forms.

The current movement to green playgrounds is an opportunity to develop outdoor schools within schools. The benefits are not limited to imagining flexible learning spaces, but to developing more resilient spaces in the face of global warming. It also helps to combat the risk of flooding in certain cities and to create corridors for animal species.

Moving from the asphalt courtyard to the naturalized courtyard, bringing nature into the courtyard is an opportunity to rethink teaching practices, by developing a vegetable garden, a garden, by implementing disciplinary or multidisciplinary projects at all levels of primary and secondary education. Easy access and the absence of specific administrative measures are all means of transforming these green spaces into pivots for the construction of learning, with time for reading but also for calculation or simply for resting in nature during lunch breaks.

Transforming the way we teach involves a fundamental reflection on what we want to do and what we can do. It is a velvet revolution in the sense that, in the end, it is not a question of changes that are a break with his previous teaching but of a fluid and complementary process.The Conversation

Sylvain Wagnon, University Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.